In almost every Spanish city, town and village local folk culture is alive and well.
And because each part of the country can be so different from the next there’s a marvellous variety of festivals, usually falling on the day of the local patron saint.
As the celebrations are often inspired by centuries-old customs and legends, many events can be pretty zany, with food fights, marathon drumming sessions and huge, barely-controlled bonfires.
Making an appearance at a lot of these festivities are each town’s gigantes (giants) and cabezudos (big-heads), huge carnival-style papier mâché figures that can date back hundreds of years.
Here’s the best festivals in Spain:
1. Semana Santa
For atmosphere you can’t match the evening parades that take place in every Spanish city during Holy Week before Easter.
Penitents will wear robes and long, conical masks bearing the colours of their religious brotherhoods.
They’ll carry long candles and the strongest and most tireless will haul large floats with Easter scenes, like the Passion and weeping statues of the Virgin Mary.
Brass bands will play solemn marches and in many places towards the south women will sing saetas, flamenco laments.
The whole ritual is medieval, but many of the Catholic brotherhoods that organise the marches have their roots in the Counterreformation in the 16th century.
2. Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
In the two weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday one of the world’s biggest parties breaks out in the joint capital of the Canary Islands.
Every year the celebrations have a new theme, which in recent years have been the 1980s, the future, cartoons and Bollywood, and everyone is expected to show up in disguise.
All sorts of traditional musical groups are involved in the fun, including Murgas, musical street performers, and comparsas, satirical musicians.
The event that people throughout Spain will recognise is the Wednesday before Ash Wednesday when the Carnival Queen is selected.
These contestants wear costumes so outlandish that they need wheels to be able to move in them.
The whole crazy thing is brought to a close a week later when the sardine is buried, a traditional Spanish ritual that marks the beginning of lent.
3. Carnival of Cádiz
At roughly the same time, these celebrations to usher in the beginning of lent take place in the Andalusian city of Cádiz.
Here the focus is on the comparsas, musical groups that take advantage of the freedom granted by the rules of carnival to dress up together and sing bawdy, satirical songs about the government or world affairs.
The climax takes place at the Gran Teatro Falla when the best comparsa is selected after a contest, usually in front of a national TV audience.
For two weeks the streets are filled with a host of other musical groups, many of which simply rove around the streets and perform spontaneous theatre skits.
4. Los Reyes Magos
The night before Epiphany, January 6, is a special time for Spanish children.
This is when the Three Kings in the nativity tradition arrive to give their gifts to the baby Jesus.
So to mark the day there are celebrations in most Spanish towns and cities, where the kings, Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar ride through the streets in a procession.
They represent Europe, Arabia and Africa, and during the parade will throw candy into the crowd.
The night of the sixth is also the traditional time to hand out gifts: Kids will put their shoes out before bed, and see what they’ve got the next morning.
If they’ve been naughty they’ll get coal.
Of course, this doesn’t really happen, but carbón dulce, a black hard candy is a popular gift at this time of year!
5. Las Fallas, Valencia
The story behind these noisy, firework-heavy celebrations is that as spring approached, the city’s woodworkers would burn off any old scraps that they had accumulated in their workshops during the winter with a parot, a wooden device used for lighting fires.
Over time this parot took the shape of a person, and now they are ninots, expertly designed grotesques representing anything from politicians to celebrities.
Along with larger sculptures all of these except a designated winner are burned amid near-apocalyptic scenes at the Cremà on the 19th of March to bring everything to a close.
Every day at 2pm from the 1st to the 19th there are noisy firecracker displays at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, called the Mascletà.
6. Patios de Córdoba
The traditional way to counter Córdoba’s fierce, dry climate is with a medina-style tangle of shaded alleys and interior courtyards (patios)with fountains.
Plants also brought a sense of freshness, so for hundreds of years the people of Córdoba have been adding colour to their patios in Spring with beautiful flower displays.
In the first two weeks of May the older neighbourhoods of the city opens up: There’s a big parade ”
The Battle of the Flowers” at the start, and a competition to decide the most beautiful patio of them all.
You can walk a designated route around all the best patios and in the evenings there’s local music, dance and plenty of fino (dry sherry).
7. Feria de Abril
The Seville Fair takes place a week after Semana Santa and is a celebration on an unbelievable scale and intensity.
Everyone heads off to the fairground in Los Remedios to the southwest of the city.
There the scent of fried food, fino, orange blossom and jasmine will be on the air, and almost everyone will be wearing traditional flamenco costume.
The women will be in those famous colourful dresses, usually polka-dotted.
At the fairground are around a thousand casetas, mostly private tents with live music, drink and tapas, where people will dance typical Sevillanas until dawn.
8. Santa Tecla Festival, Tarragona
This historic city in southern Catalonia has an atmospheric medieval old-town and is just the right environment for a festival that goes back to at least the 11th century.
Also full of gunpowder, Santa Tecla takes over the city for the last two weeks of September and involves dances, parades and demonstrations of the famed castells (human towers). On the parades that run through the stone streets of Part Alta in the last few days of the festival are representations of medieval mythological creatures.
When the dragon appears that means it’s time to find a safe doorway as this thing spews the red sparks of fireworks from its nostrils.
The gegants (Catalan for Gigantes) also make an appearance, and Tarragona’s are especially old, dating to the early-19th century.
9. La Tomatina, Bunyol
This insane food-fight takes place on the last Wednesday of August in this little town around 40 kilometres from Valencia.
Bunyol’s population of around 9,000 swells to three or four times that, as an army of tourists arrives for the fun.
Such is La Tomatina’s international popularity that the local council has now made it a ticket-only event, so you have to register early to get in.
Despite the chaos, with 15 tons of tomatoes being thrown in two hours, La Tomatina passes off without incident each year.
It helps that the tomatoes are over-ripe and that you’re supposed to crush them a little before throwing.
Pack goggles if you don’t want eyes full of pulp!
10. Moros y Cristianos, Alcoi
During the re-conquest, when Spain’s various Christian kingdoms combined to re-take the country from the Moors, a host of cities became battlegrounds.
Today, many commemorate important sieges, battles and campaigns that took place in and around their city in the 13th century with colourful re-enactments.
Alcoi’s three-day Christians and Moors festival in late-April has “International Tourist Interest” status, with roots in the 16th century.
The whole thing reaches a crescendo on the day after St. George’s Day, when the Christians in chivalric gear are first pushed away from the model castle in Plaza Espana by the Moors wearing turbans and scimitars.
With the help of a lot of gunpowder the Christians then rally around the statue of St.
George and regain the town.
11. Feria de Jerez
These celebrations in late-April or early-May also have International Tourist Interest, and are the perfect way to get acquainted with some of this Andalusian city’s traditions.
It goes back to the middle ages, when farmers convened to buy and sell horses.
Horses are a big part of the celebrations, with parades and equestrian demonstrations in a region that is well-known for its horse-breeding heritage.
Fino is a big part of the fun too, and here it’s often mixed with lemonade to create a “rebujito” cocktail.
Casetas, like the kind you get in Seville, are part of the fun, but unlike those in Seville these tents are open to all.
12. San Fermín, Pamplona
For better or worse, this festival gets worldwide coverage and is probably the most famous in Spain.
From the moment the chupinazo (rocket ceremony) takes place at noon on July 6 there’s non-stop mayhem until the 14th.
What gets most attention are the eight hair-raising “encierros”, bull-runs through Pamplona’s old-town to the Plaza de Toros.
These runs involve six bulls and six steers, and the daring or crazy participants wear a traditional white outfit and red neckerchief.
There are bullfights every afternoon involving the bulls that had taken part in the run that morning, and every day are parades with Pamplona’s gigantes and cabezudos, which are more than 150 years-old.
13. Festa Major de Gràcia, Barcelona
For a week from August 15 the Barcelona neighbourhood of Gràcia is transformed.
Each street and plaza is decorated with a different, creative motif, and these hand-made designs come alive after sunset when they are all lit up.
The decorations are made by residents, who work throughout the year coming up with fresh ideas and bringing them to life in the most immersive ways.
During the festival there are loads of things going on, including a parade with gegants (gigantes in Catalan), nightly music performances on the plazas and castells.
On the 16th the winners of the best-decorated street and balcony are announced.
14. San Isidro, Madrid
There are four or five days of celebrations centred on the 15th May in Madrid, which is when people rise early to visit the shrine of San Isidro at the Pradera park.
This is a pilgrimage on a huge scale, and everybody who makes the trip is expected to take a drink from the spring for good luck.
Later that morning there are parades with gigantes.
Almost everyone will be dressed in traditional garb, the chulapo for men and goyesco for women, and all around will be chotis (Madrid’s regional dance). The festival coincides with Madrid’s bullfighting season, while traditional Madrileño food is a big part of the celebrations, especially rosquillas, a kind of donut.
15. Aste Nagusia, Bilbao
The biggest party of the year in Bilbao kicks off on August 15 and lasts for nine days.
At the Txupinazo a throng gathers in front of the Arriaga Theatre waving the Ikurriña Flag and waiting for the firework that signals the beginning of the festivities.
This is also the first time you see the sculpture of Marijaia, depicting a slightly rotund woman with arms held aloft.
Marijaia is the mascot, and a constant presence through a blur of merry-making, a big foodfight, Basque-style strongman competitions, bull-runs, bullfights, fireworks competitions and concerts, and then she is set ablaze (unfortunately for her) to bring everything to a close.